Monthly Archives: February 2016

Hong Kong Street Photography pt. I

Note the Buddhist left-facing swastika

Face Masks: note the Buddhist left-facing swastika

Sleeping Child With Face Mask

Sleeping Child With Face Mask

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Woman with meat cleaver

Bowrington Road, Hong Kong

Man & Fish Head, Bowrington Road

Man on Jordan Road, Kowloon

Man (in pajamas?) on Jordan Road, Kowloon

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Showing off in Stanley Market

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Singapore Street Photography pt. II

South Bridge Road by Mohamed Ali Lane, Singapore

Tending flower pot, South Bridge Road by Mohamed Ali Lane

Chinatown, Singapore

Man on Scooter, Chinatown

Wisma Atria, Orchard Road, Singapore

Repairing steps, Wisma Atria, Orchard Road

Little India, Singapore

Riding bicycle in Little India

Woman With Umbrella

Woman with umbrella, School of the Arts, Bras Basah Road

Woman In Red Dress

Woman in red dress walking up Orchard Road

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Singapore Street Photography pt. I

Man and Woman on Scooter, Orchard Road, Singapore

Man and Woman on Scooter, Orchard Road

Girl waits from rain to stop, Gardens by the Bay, Singapore

Girl waits for rain to stop, Gardens by the Bay

Mother Holding Daughter

Mother Holding Daughter

Joyful Man, Marina Bay, Singapore

Joyful Man, Marina Bay

Boy shoots father with toy gun on the Promenade, Singapore

Boy shoots father with toy gun on the Promenade

Power Washing Steps, Parkview Square, North Bridge Road, Singapore

Power Washing Steps, Parkview Square, North Bridge Road

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Modern Singapore

When I hear the word “development” I feel skeptical. Phrases like “structural adjustments” aren’t far behind. I wonder, too, if it isn’t just a case of Western financial institutions trying to make non-Western places over in their own image. When I hear the word “development” in connection with words like “modern” and “modernism” my skepticism turns up a notch.

We might say to a friend: “See the modern-looking building.” But our observation is far from neutral. Modern is not a stylistic quirk or a design decision. It’s an expression of an ideology. It’s a way of being in the world. It assumes the primacy of science, the certainty of progress, the promise of a bright and shining future, the value of democracy, the inevitability of capitalism, the cachet of consumption. Even those of us who turn a critical eye to its assumptions can’t help but note that we ourselves are moderns. We were born into it. We have internalized its values. As a result, we catch ourselves speaking out of both sides of our mouths. We fret for the environment but drift into malls and buy things we know will end up buried in landfill. We point a finger at late capitalism’s unjust distribution of wealth yet run out to play our lottery numbers.

Like all large cities suckling at the teat of late capitalism, it looks like Singapore has thrown its official plan into the shredder. Large construction projects have sprung up everywhere. The demand for cheap foreign labour goes up and up even as local citizenship requirements become more stringent. There’s a whiff of payola in the air. Dirty money in need of laundering. I’m no forensic accountant, but when every mall has a Rolex store, I get the feeling something is strange with the local economy.

Ceiling of The Shoppes at Marina Bay Sands, Singapore

Ceiling of The Shoppes at Marina Bay Sands, Singapore

Take the Marina Bay Sands – hotel, world’s largest atrium casino, convention centre, museum, theatres, shopping mall, 7 celebrity chef restaurants, infinity pool, skating rink, indoor river with gondoliers. With an $8bn price tag, it’s touted as the world’s most expensive standalone casino property. It all seems a bit grandiose. More to the point, it all seems a bit beyond ordinary people. The scale of its buildings reinforces that feeling. This is a place better suited for giants.

Supertrees and Flower Dome, Gardens by the Bay, Singapore

Supertrees and Flower Dome, Gardens by the Bay, Singapore

Within sight of Marina Bay Sands are the Gardens by the Bay which includes the conservatories. Shown above is the Flower Dome, the world’s largest columnless glasshouse. You get the impression that Singapore doesn’t mess around. It wants the biggest of this and the best of that.

Marina Bay Sands Hotel viewed from the Flower Dome, Singapore

Marina Bay Sands Hotel viewed from the Flower Dome, Singapore

I’m fascinated by the municipal fetish for waterfront ferris wheels. London has the Eye. Hong Kong has its prosaically named Observation Wheel. Singapore has the Flyer. Toronto’s former mayor, the illustrious Rob Ford, wanted Toronto to have a giant ferris wheel, too, reasoning that we couldn’t be a “world class” city without one. The city dismissed his proposal as the whimsical product of a sad man-child’s immature brain. One wonders if the city would have reacted differently had the proposal come from Toronto’s current and sober mayor.

View of Singapore Flyer, ArtScience Museum, and Double Helix Bridge

View of Singapore Flyer, ArtScience Museum, and Double Helix Bridge

Path alongside the Flower Dome, Gardens by the Bay, Singapore

Path alongside the Flower Dome, Gardens by the Bay, Singapore

One of the problems with modern architecture – or modern anything for that matter – is that it plays to the future at the expense of the past. Old buildings are obsolete or inefficient. Historical concerns and cultural significance get in the way.

The Concourse business tower viewed over the tiled roofs of Arab Town, Singapore.

The Concourse business tower viewed over the tiled roofs of Arab Town, Singapore.

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Singapore’s Chinatown

While in Singapore, we had an invitation to the Tanglin Club. Our host, who is ethnically Chinese, showed us the plaques spanning the club’s 150 year history. The plaques listed presidents of the club, almost all with British names – names like mine. In fact, it was a Barker who officially opened the latest wing. Our host pointed out that, until the 1960’s, he couldn’t have been a member of the club – whites only.

An incidental effect of Singapore’s rapid development, its hypermodernism, is that it has paved over many of the vestiges of its colonial history. But a few still remain. We went to The Long Bar at the Raffles Hotel – birthplace of the Singapore Sling – and paid $32 dollars apiece for our fabled cocktails. And a few of its museums and older hotels preserve the Victorian façades.

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Our host asked what sights we had seen and I mentioned Chinatown. I thought I was being funny by suggesting that it’s a bit redundant to have a Chinatown in a place that’s 75% ethnically Chinese. “It’s not real, you know.” That was our host’s wife, a Caucasian Canadian ex-pat. “It’s a Chinatown for tourists.” Our host went on to explain that, in colonial times, when the Chinese had no choice but to live there, conditions were sometimes so crowded that there wasn’t room to lie down. The pleasant sounding decrees from Brits like Raffles masked the reality of the place.

View up Temple Street, Singapore's Chinatown

Revisiting my photos from Chinatown, I realize that most of the tourists in Chinatown are themselves Chinese. That may be because I was there in the days leading up to the Lunar New Year. Singapore is probably a good substitute for Chinese living or working in Malaysia and Indonesia who can’t get back to Hong Kong for the celebrations.

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Family Walking on Temple Street, Singapore

View from Pagoda Street, Singapore's Chinatown

Chinatown, Singapore

Cycling Along South Bridge Road, Singapore

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Singapore’s Little India

Unlike other ethnic areas, Singapore’s Little India seems less interested in tourist kitsch and more interested in catering to the needs of the people who actually live there. That includes a large population of migrant workers employed in construction, road maintenance, gardening, etc., all brutal jobs in Singapore’s humidity.

Merchant Lights Flame

In December, 2013, a riot broke out in Little India, the second riot in Singapore’s history. It was sparked by a traffic fatality involving a migrant worker. Apparently, the victim was intoxicated, as were most of the rioters. Even now, there are signs throughout Little India prohibiting the consumption of alcohol in public places on evenings, weekends, and holidays. Needless to say, the authorities (who are trained by the Israeli military) put an end to the rioting with some efficiency.

Flame

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Henna

Man Pushing Grocery Cart Into Traffic

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Singapore’s Arab Town

I’ve already noted the disneyfied feel to much of Singapore. Arab Town is no exception. When I first saw the Sultan Mosque, I expected Iago, the parrot from Aladdin, to swoop down from the roof.

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The people there look real enough, but, for all I know, they could have been planted by the Singapore Tourism Board.

Men in Arab Town, Singapore

Maybe it’s like West World. When all the tourists go back to their hotels, the technicians come out from secret hatches to service the robots, upgrade their software, oil their joints.

Man in Singapore's Arab Town

The children robots are especially cute. Having them play with toy airplanes is a nice touch.

Child With Toy

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Graffiti in Singapore

I didn’t expect to find graffiti in Singapore. Given the harsh penalties, I assumed there was enough of a deterrent to keep people from spray painting shit on walls. I was wrong. But most of it is simple tagging. I scratch my head and wonder of the artists: you risked a caning for that?

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I found some murals, but they were of the sanitized disneyfied variety at the Somerset Skate Park. Since there are other skate parks on the island, I imagine there are also other sanitized disneyfied murals.

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Then again, none of this is surprising. There’s an awful lot of Singapore that feels sanitized and disneyfied. It goes in for shopping and spectacle, malls and monuments. In the downtown, there’s little that isn’t for show. But it feels like an H.G. Wells novel. Visitors see the smiling Eloi who play all day in the sun. But we know that somewhere underneath lurk the Morlocks who keep things running. I wasn’t there long enough to figure out where the Morlocks live, but I suspect that’s where the real graffiti is.

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Graffiti in Singapore

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Smoking Asians

While the title for this post could be interpreted in more than one way, I’ll restrict myself to the one that involves cigarettes. In North America, I’m amazed at how little traction the whole “cigarettes guarantee cancer” message has gained. To be honest, I’m not amazed at all. I come from a city that elected a mayor they knew was a crack-smoking imbecile. And the nation immediately to the south of me is poised to elect a leader who is willing to stand by any claim no matter how outrageous. So the hope that humans are capable of reasoned choices seems to have vanished … in a puff of smoke.

Cigarette Break

Even so, I wonder if maybe cigarettes have a different cultural meaning in places like Singapore and Hong Kong. Rather than the West’s collective Oppositional Defiance Disorder, maybe there’s a certain je ne sais quoi that people like me can’t access. Maybe in Singapore, where mall culture thrives, people are so smitten by high fashion and images of glamour, that cigarette poses have become second nature. Maybe there’s a fatalism in Hong Kong: with so much particulate matter in the air, cigarettes don’t make an appreciable difference. But I speculate. The most I can say for certain is that I could spend a lifetime in any large Asian city photographing people smoking cigarettes.

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Serangoon Road, Little India, Singapore

Headphones and Cigarette

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Singapore on a Selfie Stick

Last summer, during Toronto’s 2015 PanAm Games experience, I noted a general rise in the prevalence of selfie sticks. It was an impression I had, but nothing I could back up with carefully gathered statistical evidence. That impression returned to me with redoubled force during my January visit to Singapore. Everywhere, tourists were trying to place themselves in shots of buildings, sculptures, signage, restaurants.

Girl takes selfie from Singapore's Double Helix bridge

The most egregious example of this appeared as I was walking through The Cloud Forest, a giant enclosed tropical rainforest environment (which seems kind of odd given that Singapore already is a tropical rainforest, or would be if it weren’t for all the concrete). I got stuck behind a woman who stopped to take selfies every five or six steps along the path. She wasn’t a young woman either. She was in her mid to late fifties. Her husband wandered ahead, then paused, drummed his fingers on the railing, rolled his eyes, called for her to hurry up. They argued through the whole pavilion. Just this one more. Just this one more. There was a compulsiveness to her behaviour. I wonder if the American Psychiatric Association will have to invent a new psychiatric disorder for its next version of the DSM.

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I wonder why this trend. As a personal aspiration in my photography, every outing is a flight from the compulsion to capture THINGS. I’m no butterfly collector. But the selfie stick seems to be part of a flight in the opposite direction. Not only do people want to collect things, they want to be the principal thing at the centre of their collection.

Selfie In Red

I think this trend is understandable. In a place like Singapore where development is rampant, the human scale is ever-shrinking. Structures are grandiose. Humans are insignificant. Highways sprawl. Traffic crawls antlike over the face of the land. Why not resist the onslaught of late modernism by taking photos that declare: I am here; I matter?

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